Queer Feet and a Queerer Bill
P ETER RABBIT had gone over to the Green Forest to call on his cousin, Jumper the Hare, who lives there altogether. He had no difficulty in finding Jumper's tracks in the snow, and by following these he at length came up with Jumper. The fact is, Peter almost bumped into Jumper before he saw him, for Jumper was wearing a coat as white as the snow itself. Squatting under a little snow-covered hemlock-tree he looked like nothing more than a little mound of snow.
"Oh!" cried Peter. "How you startled me! I wish I had a winter coat like yours. It must be a great help in avoiding your enemies."
"It certainly is, Cousin Peter," cried Jumper. "Nine times out of ten all I have to do is to sit perfectly still when there was no wind to carry my scent. I have had Reddy Fox pass within a few feet of me and never suspect that I was near. I hope this snow will last all winter. It is only when there isn't any snow that I am particularly worried. Then I am not easy for a minute, because my white coat can be seen a long distance against the brown of the dead leaves."
Peter chuckled. "that is just when I feel safest," he replied. "I like the snow, but this brown-gray coat of mine certainly does show up against it. Don't you find it pretty lonesome over here in the Green Forest with all the birds gone, Cousin Jumper?"
Jumper shook his head. "Not all have gone, Peter, you know," said he. "Strutter the Grouse and Mrs. Grouse are here, and I see them every day. They've got snowshoes now."
Peter blinked his eyes and looked rather perplexed. "Snowshoes!" he exclaimed. "I don't understand what you mean."
"Come with me," replied Jumper, "and I'll show you."
So Jumper led the way and Peter followed close at his heels. Presently they came to some tracks in the snow. At first glance they reminded Peter of the queer tracks Farmer Brown's ducks made in the mud on the edge of the Smiling Pool in summer. "What funny tracks those are!" he exclaimed. "Who made them?"
"Just keep on following me and you'll see," retorted Jumper.
So they continued to follow the tracks until presently, just ahead of them, they saw Strutter the Grouse. Peter opened his eyes with surprise when he discovered that those queer tracks were made by Strutter.
"Cousin Peter wants to see your snowshoes, Strutter," said Jumper as they came up with him.
Strutter's bright eyes sparkled. "He's just as curious as ever, isn't he?" said he. "Well, I don't mind showing him my snowshoes because I think myself that they are really quite wonderful." He held up one foot with the toes spread apart and Peter saw that growing out from the sides of each toe were queer little horny points set close together. They quite filled the space between his toes. Peter recalled that when he had seen Strutter in the summer those toes had been smooth and that his tracks on soft ground had shown the outline of each toe clearly. "How funny!" exclaimed Peter.
"There's nothing funny about them," retorted Strutter. "If Old Mother Nature hadn't given me something of this kind I certainly would have a hard time of it when there is snow on the ground. If my feet were just the same as in summer I would sink right down in when the snow is soft and wouldn't be able to walk about at all. Now, with these snowshoes I get along very nicely. You see I sink in but very little."
He took three or four steps and Peter saw right away how very useful those snowshoes were. "My!" he exclaimed. "I wish Old Mother Nature would give me snowshoes too." Strutter and Jumper both laughed and after a second Peter laughed with them, for he realized how impossible it would be for him to have anything like those snowshoes of Strutter's.
"Cousin Peter was just saying that he should think I would find it lonesome over here in the Green Forest. He forgot that you and Mrs. Grouse stay all winter, and he forgot that while most of the birds who spent the summer here have left, there are others who come down from the Far North to take their place."
"Who, for instance?" demanded Peter.
"Snipper the Crossbill," replied Jumper promptly. "I haven't seen him yet this winter, but I know he is here because only this morning I found some pine seeds on the snow under a certain tree."
"Huh!" Peter exclaimed. "That doesn't prove anything. Those seeds might have just fallen, or Chatterer the Red Squirrel might have dropped them."
"This isn't the season for seeds to just fall, and I know by the signs that Chatterer hasn't been about," retorted Jumper. "Let's go over there now and see what we will see."
Once more he led the way and Peter followed. As they drew near that certain pine-tree, a short whistled note caused them to look up. Busily at work on a pine cone near the top of a tree was a bird about the size of Bully the English Sparrow. He was dressed wholly in dull red with brownish-black wings and tail.
"What did I tell you?" cried Jumper. "There's Snipper this very minute, and over in that next tree are a lot of his family and relatives. See in what a funny way they climb about among the branches. They don't flit or hop, but just climb around. I don't know of any other bird anywhere around here that does that."
Just then a seed dropped and landed on the snow almost in front of Peter's nose. Almost at once Snipper himself followed it, picking it up and eating it with as much unconcern as if Peter and Jumper were a mile away instead of only a foot or so. The very first thing Peter noticed was Snipper's bill. The upper and lower halves crossed at the tips. That bill looked very much as if Snipper had struck something hard and twisted the tips over.
"Have—have—you met with an accident?" he asked a bit hesitatingly.
Snipper looked surprised. "Are you talking to me?" he asked. "Whatever put such an idea into your head?"
"Your bill," replied Peter promptly. "How did it get twisted like that?"
Snipper laughed. "It isn't twisted," said he. "It is just the way Old Mother Nature made it, and I really don't know what I'd do if it were any different."
Peter scratched one long ear, as is his way when he is puzzled. "I don't see," said he, "how it is possible for you to pick up food with a bill like that."
"And I don't see how I would get my food if I didn't have a bill like this," retorted Snipper. Then, seeing how puzzled Peter really was, he went on to explain. "You see, I live very largely on the seeds that grow in pine cones and the cones of other trees. Of course I eat some other food, such as seeds and buds of trees. But what I love best of all are the seeds that grow in the cones of evergreen trees. If you've ever looked at one of those cones, you will understand that those seeds are not very easy to get at. But with this kind of a bill it is no trouble at all. I can snip them out just as easily as birds with straight bills can pick up seeds. You see my bill is very much like a pair of scissors."
"It really is very wonderful," confessed Peter. "Do you mind telling me, Snipper, why I never have seen you here in summer?"
"For the same reason that in summer you never see Snowflake and Wanderer the Horned Lark and some others I might name," replied Snipper. "Give me the Far North every time. I would stay there the year through but that sometimes food gets scarce up there. That is why I am down here now. If you'll excuse me, I'll go finish my breakfast."
Snipper flew up in the tree where the other Crossbills were at work and Peter and Jumper watched them.
"I suppose you know," said Jumper, "that Snipper has a cousin who looks almost exactly like him with the exception of two white bars on each wing. He is called the White-winged Crossbill."
"I didn't know it," replied Peter, "but I'm glad you've told me. I certainly shall watch out for him. I can't get over those funny bills. No one could ever mistake it for any other bird. Is there anyone else now from the Far North whom I haven't seen?"